High birthrate threatens to trap Africa in cycle of poverty

Posted: 4 September 2006

The exceptionally rapid increase in the population of many African countries threatens to undermine efforts to reduce poverty and to result in conflicts over land and other resources, according to a report from Xan Rice in Uganda, reproduced here from The Guardian.

A group of children, Kampala, Uganda. Photo: 2001 Sara A. Holtz, Courtesy of Photoshare
A group of children, Kampala, Uganda. Photo: 2001 Sara A. Holtz, Courtesy of Photoshare
A group of children, Kampala, Uganda.© 2001 Sara A. Holtz, Courtesy of Photoshare
There are 27.7 million people in Uganda. But by 2025 the population will almost double to 56 million, close to that of Britain, which has a similar land mass. In 44 years its population will have grown by nearly as much as China's.

"You look at these numbers and think 'that's impossible'," said Carl Haub, senior demographer at the US-based Population Reference Bureau, whose latest global projections show Uganda as the fastest-growing country in the world. Midway through the 21st century, if current birthrates persist, Uganda will be the world's 12th most populous country with 130 million people - more than Russia or Japan.

A group of women hold their newborns at a family planning clinic in Kampala, Uganda. Photo: 2001 Hugh Rigby/CCP, Courtesy of Photoshare
A group of women hold their newborns at a family planning clinic in Kampala, Uganda. Photo: 2001 Hugh Rigby/CCP, Courtesy of Photoshare
Family planning must have higher priority. Clinic in Kampala, Uganda.© Hugh Rigby/CCP, Courtesy of Photoshare
Startling as they are, the projections are feasible, and a glance at some of the variables shows why. A typical Ugandan woman gives birth to seven children - an extraordinarily high fertility rate that has remained largely unchanged for more than 30 years. Half the population is under 15, and will soon move into childbearing age. Only one in five married women has access to contraception.

Taken together, the factors point to a population explosion that has demographers and family planning experts warning that efforts to cut poverty are doomed unless urgent measures are taken.

Changing world

And not just in Uganda. Across much of sub-Saharan Africa the population is expanding so quickly that the planet's demographic map is changing.

In the rest of world, including developing nations in Asia and South America, fertility rates have steadily declined to an average of 2.3 children to each mother. Most will experience only modest population growth in coming decades. Some countries, particularly in eastern Europe, will see their numbers decline.

But by 2050 Chad, Mali, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Niger, Burundi and Malawi - all among the poorest nations in the world - are projected to triple in size. Nigeria will have become the world's fourth-biggest country. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia will have vaulted into the top 10 for the first time. Nearly one in four of the world's population will come from Africa - up from one in seven today.

"What's happening is alarming and depressing," said Jotham Musinguzi, director of the population secretariat in Uganda's ministry of finance, pointing out the clear correlation between high fertility levels and poverty. "Are we really going to be able to give these extra people jobs, homes, healthcare and education?"

Development may not be the only casualty of the population boom. With increased competition for scarce resources such as land, conflict is likely to increase. Consequences will be felt far beyond Africa: pressure to migrate abroad - already great - can only grow, experts say.

Large families

It is not yet a lost cause. Experience has shown that with strong political will population growth can be tackled in Africa. Southern Africa's population is expected to remain stable thanks to sustained efforts to cut fertility rates, although Aids-related deaths are also a factor. In 1978 Uganda's neighbour Kenya had the world's highest fertility rate - more than eight children per mother. The government made family planning a national priority and by the mid-1990s the figure had dropped to below five.

But a number of African leaders, including Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, believe that their countries are underpopulated, and that a bigger internal market and workforce will boost their economic prospects. In a speech to MPs in July Mr Museveni said: "I am not one of those worried about the 'population explosion'. This is a great resource."

Studies across Africa have shown that the desire for large families remains powerful. In Nigeria a recent survey revealed that only 4% of women with two children said they wanted no more. Part of the reason is cultural, with bigger families seen as a sign of security. It is also because of fears of high levels of infant mortality.

Wrong focus

Stigmas about birth control are another factor. Reproductive health experts say that a lack of information and of availability of female contraceptives plays a major role. In Ethiopia only 8% of married women use contraceptives. In Uganda more than a third of all women say they would like to stop - or at least stall - having children.

For that, donors must share the blame, said Steven Sinding, director-general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. He said the world had declared premature victory in the battle to cut fertility rates. Curbing population growth is not one of the UN's Millennium Development Goals, which aim to halve poverty by 2015, and barely features in the Commission for Africa report championed by Tony Blair.

"In sub-Saharan Africa population remains a very serious problem," said Mr Sinding. "Yet donors have completely shifted their focus to HIV/Aids and nobody is talking about it any more."

Elly Mugumya, head of the Family Planning Association of Uganda, agreed. Cost is not the problem in Uganda, he explained: a three-month supply of birth-control pills costs about 25 cents; condoms are free for the men. The problem is access - in most parts of Uganda clinics simply do not exist.

logo Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006. This article was first published by The Guardian, (Friday September 1, 2006). All rights reserved. Reproduced with kind permission.

Note: The 2006 World Population Data Sheet can be downloaded free from the website of the Population Reference Bureau at Data Sheet. The sheet gives demographic data on all of the countries of the world.

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